To Hell with Materialism
My paper is based upon recent research undertaken on Sir Kenneth Clark and his Chairmanship of the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC) of the Ministry of Information (November 1939 – December 1945) as part of my 2011 monograph The Face of Courage: Eric Kennington, Portraiture and the Second World War (Kennington and a number of other official war artists were highly critical of Clark’s views). I focus on the rich and varied writings on the purpose of art within a democratic society Clark produced as Chair of the WAAC. These included articles for the Listener (such as ‘Art for the People’, November 1939) and the World Review, and the Studio and Cornhill magazines, as well as prefaces and introductions for a number of publications supported by the WAAC such as War Pictures by British Artists. I explore how Clark conveyed his sometimes conflicted views on the role of state-sponsored art in a free society at war and how such art might best be delivered to the mass of the population, the majority of which had little pre-war experience of interaction with the art world and public art institutions. In addition, Clark sought to promote awareness of certain favoured art movements and individual artists such as exponents of the Euston Road School, established in 1937, (for example, William Coldstream and Graham Bell), as well as those associated with the so-called New Romantic movement (so identified by Raymond Mortimer in 1942) such as Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland and John Piper. Many of the convictions that Clark first developed during the Second World War (and attempted to set down in an unpublished text from c.1940–1 titled ‘To Hell with Materialism’) reappeared later in his book Landscape Into Art (1949) and in his celebrated 1969 BBC television series Civilisation.
The Connoisseur as Conservationist: Clark’s Animals and Men (1977)
In the 1970s Clark was invited by the World Wildlife Fund to write a book on ‘animals in art’. As countless museums have discovered since, lavishly illustrated works of this kind are a highly profitable fundraising endeavour. In Clark’s hands, however, the project turned into something rather more significant: a philosophical and psychological study of man’s relationship with his fellow creatures, from the time of the Lascaux caves to the present. For Clark this relationship represented ‘a faith we may all share’. This paper compares Clark’s vision of nature with that of his contemporaries (in particular John Berger) and asks how far it anticipated today’s interest in anthrozoology or Human-Animal Studies (HAS).
Kenneth Clark and Roger Fry
Kenneth Clark’s devotion to Roger Fry went back to his schooldays, when he first read Vision and Design (1920), described by him as ‘the finest education in art criticism I ever received’. The two men became friends when Clark was an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1920s, and worked together on the blockbuster exhibition of Italian Art at the Royal Academy in 1930. After Fry’s death in 1934 Clark edited his Last Lectures, the fragmentary course on world art history that he had begun as Slade Professor of Art in Cambridge. In the introduction Clark famously remarked, ‘In so far as taste can be changed by one man, it was changed by Roger Fry’, referring to Fry’s championing of modernist, non-western and tribal art. But it was Fry’s writing and lecturing on early Italian art which had the most profound influence on Clark, and this is the focus of my paper, centring on Clark’s monograph on Piero della Francesca, published in 1951. Clark’s and Fry’s intellectual debts to Bernard Berenson are also considered briefly.
Clark’s controversial tirade in the Listener in October 1935 blasted both abstraction and surrealism as Germanic incursions into the body of British art. He concluded indeed that painting was now virtually impossible, until a new mythology supplied the artist with viable content to work with. How did Clark arrive at this uncharacteristically extreme position, in particular artistic and political circumstances, and in relation to wider debates in the early 1930s about the national and international dimensions of English art and culture? And how did his position in 1935 mesh with his subsequent (or perhaps concurrent?) ‘Romantic Modernism’, whereby nature and the native tradition came to be seen as potential springboards for a revival of British art? It is interesting to note continuities with his Landscape into Art (1949) book, which ends on a similarly apocalyptic note.
The Persistence of Medievalism
Kenneth Clark’s prolific writing and wide networks within the arts incorporated a lifelong attention to how the arts of the Middle Ages were reworked for British modern life. In his first book on the Gothic Revival, which appeared in 1928 and was revised and reissued in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as his persuasive 1964 book on John Ruskin’s relevance for mid-twentieth-century British culture and his significant relationships with advocates for medievalism including John Betjeman and John Ninian Comper, Clark emphasised the validity of the Gothic style for modern British thought. This paper draws on Tate’s archives to explore Clark’s interest in medievalism and Victorian culture, suggesting that this little-studied aspect of Clark’s vast output deserves thorough investigation in relation to his better-known projects and roles.
Kenneth Clark and the Unwritten Book on Alberti
In December 1977 Kenneth Clark stated that he had spent ‘several years collecting materials for a book on Alberti which, owing to the war, was never written’. This paper examines the articles and lectures that Clark did write on Alberti, outlines the art historian’s considerable knowledge of his subject, and suggests reasons for the fact that the book was never written. In the end Clark wrote three substantial articles on Alberti:
- ‘Leon Battista Alberti on Painting’, British Academy Annual Italian Lecture, delivered 1 November 1944, Proceedings of the British Academy, vol.30, 1944, pp.283–302.
- ‘Leon Battista Alberti: A Renaissance Personality’, History Today, vol.1, no.7, July 1951, pp.11–17.
- ‘The Master Builder’, review of Franco Borsi, Leon Battista Alberti, trans. by Rudolf G. Carpanini, New York 1977, in New York Review of Books,26 January 1978, pp.7–9.
The first article on Della pittura is entirely concerned with the treatise on painting and the third piece is largely about Alberti the architect, but the second article is a very wide-ranging text about Alberti’s multi-faceted personality and his literary writings. A note at the end of this second article gives us an idea of what might have been in Clark’s book: ‘a longer study of Alberti, dealing with his work as architect, his treatise on architecture, his theory of painting, and several of his other multifarious interests’. In the end Clark never wrote a book on the great Renaissance polymath, possibly because, as he says, many of the works are ‘heavy-going’ and that even a book on Alberti the architect was a subject that was ‘likely to fall apart in one’s hands’. However, what emerges clearly from an analysis of the three articles is that Clark had an extraordinarily broad understanding of all of the humanist’s literary works, not just the treatises on art, and particularly of two vernacular dialogues that are hardly known well even today, Della tranquillità dell’animo (On Peace of Mind) and De iciarchia (On Leadership), and all this at a time when there were no modern editions of most of Alberti’s writings.
Literary Associations, Writing Method and Library
To date, no consideration has been given to the significance of Clark’s close association with key contemporary literary figures with whom he became associated and how their thoughts and writings were aligned to the broader cultural context of his social stance, and his allusive political and religious beliefs. This first part of this paper reconstructs these contextual clues. While textual analysis of Clark’s writings is fundamental, all too often the physical act of writing is overlooked. This paper explores Clark’s writing method, and how and where his later writings were undertaken. It also briefly considers Clark’s Saltwood library, both at The Castle and The Garden House. By 1960 the library contained some 10,000 volumes including many rare Italian publications and the contentious Edith Wharton’s library left to her godson, Colin Clark. On the death of Kenneth Clark the disposal of the Wharton books caused family anxiety, but why?
Kenneth Clark’s Memoirs
One of the many questions that a biographer has to ask of his or her subject is how do we reconcile the private individual with the performative nature of public life? This has particular relevance to Kenneth Clark, particularly during the period in which he was director of the National Gallery, years he retrospectively labelled ‘the Great Clark Boom’. Unlike John Rothenstein, writing in Brave Day, Hideous Night (1966), Clark avoided detailed analysis of the trials he encountered at the National Gallery, but anyone seeking to write a new biography of Clark might look for the gaps, elisions and silences that lie beneath the smooth surface of his very engaging memoir. This talk hints at some of the problems his memoirs present.
Jonathan Black, Senior Research Fellow in the History of Art, Kingston University
Jonathan Conlin, Senior Lecturer, University of Southampton
Alice Correia, Henry Moore Foundation Research Fellow, Tate
Carolyn Cumming, art historian
Robert Cumming, art historian
Caroline Elam, art historian
Martin Hammer, Professor of History and Philosophy of Art, University of Kent
Ayla Lepine, Teaching Associate, Faculty of Arts, University of Nottingham~
Nigel Llewellyn, Head of Research, Tate
Jules Lubbock, Emeritus Professor, University of Essex
Martin MacLaughlin, Agnelli-Serena Professor of Italian Studies, Fellow of Magdalen College, University of Oxford
Jennifer Mundy, Head of Collection Research, Tate
Scott Nethersole, Lecturer in Renaissance Art, Courtauld Institute of Art
Tom Overton, researcher
Jenny Powell, Senior Curator, Collection and Programme, Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge
Peter Rumley, art historian
Max Saunders, Professor of English and Director of the Arts and Humanities Research Institute, King’s College London
Frances Spalding, art historian
Chris Stephens, Curator, Modern British Art, Tate Britain
John-Paul Stonard, art historian and critic
James Stourton, art historian and biographer of Kenneth Clark